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Backpacker Magazine – May 2012

Hiking Makes You Smarter

Yes, the views and fresh air and exercise make every backpacking trip worthwhile. But now, new research shows, staying home is just plain dumb. Learn why backpacking boosts brainpower in this exclusive report from the frontiers of environmental neuroscience.

by: Elisabeth Kwak-Hefferan

Illustration by Noma Bar
Illustration by Noma Bar
Putting the theory to the test. (Photo by: Elisabeth Kwak-Hefferan)
Putting the theory to the test. (Photo by: Elisabeth Kwak-Hefferan)
David Strayer (Photo by: Elisabeth Kwak-Hefferan)
David Strayer (Photo by: Elisabeth Kwak-Hefferan)
Paul Atchley (Photo by: Elisabeth Kwak-Hefferan)
Paul Atchley (Photo by: Elisabeth Kwak-Hefferan)
Ruth Ann Atchley (Photo by: Elisabeth Kwak-Hefferan)
Ruth Ann Atchley (Photo by: Elisabeth Kwak-Hefferan)
Clear thinking (Photo by: Kim Phillips)
Clear thinking (Photo by: Kim Phillips)
Illustration by Noma Bar
Illustration by Noma Bar

The next morning, I wake up early and sneak out of my tent, camera in hand. We’re camped on a natural platform, 50 feet above the sandy wash below. I leave the trail and scramble up a rusty sandstone fin. I pick my way up, trusting the stickiness of my rubber soles and thinking of not much except the view. By the time I’ve reached the top and trained my zoom lens back on camp, the scientists are up and puttering around. “We’re in the peak part of soft fascination,” Strayer tells me later as we pump spring water just up the trail. “I’d really have to stop and think to tell you what day of the week it is right now.”

It’s Friday, three days into the trip—the magic number, according to both hiker anecdotes and preliminary research. Strayer calls it the “three-day syndrome,” or the optimized cognitive state you reach after spending at least that much time in the backcountry. Lab studies prove that even 30 minutes of nature make a difference in cognitive test scores; Strayer’s hunch is that those benefits accumulate. And that makes backpackers uniquely positioned to reap the rewards. “That doesn’t mean that others can’t benefit, but really big improvements are associated with disconnecting for longer periods of time.”

So does that mean that spending, say, three weeks hiking the John Muir Trail will buy me a superhuman prefrontal cortex? Not quite, Strayer tells me: “You probably have the full dose now. I can take three days or five days or 10 days, but in terms of restorative properties, I’m probably already there.” Notice that “probably”—nobody has measured this hypothesis scientifically yet. But if you’re choosing between a two-week backpacking trip once a year and a bunch of three-day weekends closer to home, neuroscientists bet that shorter and more frequent trips give you the biggest cognitive bang for your buck.

Other researchers suspect that even smaller doses of nature can add up. Marc Berman, a post-doctoral fellow at Toronto’s Rotman Research Institute and coauthor of the Michigan arboretum study, says, “Three days is an intensive kind of restoration. But imagine people going for half-hour walks, three days a week, for a year. That could have a cumulative effect.” Still, if research finds that longer periods cause measurably bigger benefits, he says, “Maybe people need to put resources into being able to do that.”

How much wilderness you need for a “full dose” of brain restoration (and how long that dose lasts) is only one of the topics Strayer and the Atchleys excitedly discuss this morning. They bat ideas about the research design back and forth, debating the best tool for capturing the nature effect. The crew is starting with the foundation: They must demonstrate that time in the wilderness actually does something before they can start explaining that something.

“My dream is not to do these pen-and-paper kinds of tests,” Strayer says. “I think the best thing would be if we could just do blood draws and look at blood proteins that are created by interaction with nature. It’s remarkable how fast these proteins are altered by your experience—you get changes within an hour, maybe faster.” Blood proteins provide a peek into how the body is using certain neurotransmitters, including those related to frontal lobe function. Theoretically, blood protein counts could signal altered levels of the neurotransmitters essential to higher-level thinking.

Translation: This nature stuff isn’t all in your head. There could be real, physical changes that unfold the moment you step onto the trail. In addition to blood proteins, saliva samples provide insight into the body’s hormone levels and stress response, while a portable EEG could help researchers infer how taxed the frontal lobe is at a given time. Berman and a team of researchers from the University of Michigan and the Rotman Research Institute are in the midst of a study comparing fMRI scans from people looking at pictures of nature versus urban environments. (An fMRI—functional MRI, which measures brain function, as opposed to an MRI, which looks at anatomy—examines changes in brain activity in different regions.) The team is also planning more work to compare hormone levels before and after the nature walk.

On our fourth morning, in a camp near Jailhouse Ruin, I put my brain to the test once again. Bundled in my bag, I unfold my second Remote Associates Test. ATHLETES, WEB, RABBIT. The answer comes to me in just a moment: FOOT. And maybe it’s only because I expect to do better this time, or because it’s quieter here than it was in Blondie’s diner, but the entire task seems easier. Answers surface in my mind almost automatically, without the frustration of the first go-round.

I’m not the only one who feels smarter. When Ruth Ann Atchley analyzes each of our before and after Remote Associates Tests, the group tallies an average improvement of 45 percent. Imagine that sort of improvement applied to other aspects of everyday life. What would happen to your bank account if your work performance took a 45-percent jump?



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Stacey Hinden
Aug 21, 2012

Thank you for this excellent article. At the Vashon Wilderness Program (vashonwildernessprogram.org) we see these kinds of changes in our students all the time... they are more alert, focused, "present" and vital alive as a result of their time in the woods with us, not to mention a demonstrating increased empathy, compassion, independence, helpfulness and reverence for the more-than-human world. Our ancestors lived in multi-sensory learning laboratories that connected them deeply to the natural world. It is no wonder that many experienced highly functioning, productive culture within their indigenous communities. Re-earthing ourselves doesn't only make us smarter, it makes us whole.

AZ Hiker
Jun 25, 2012

Be smart and read Felix! the Sugar Glider Be Safe Hike Smart (Amazon) before you hit the trail! Learn what survival items to keep in your vehicle, how to navigate your way with and without a map or compass, and how to get rescued. A fast, easy read that could save your life and will definitely make your adventure more safe and enjoyable!

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